Sunday 22 April 2018

Dallas days, and beyond - Linda Gray on life after Sue Ellen

For us, she will always be Sue Ellen Ewing, but Linda Gray's new book shows the full gamut of a challenging life, including an alcoholic mother and controlling husband

Linda Gray, wearing jewellery from the Newbridge Blue Box Collection, is pictured at Newbridge Visitor Centre, Co Kildare.
Linda Gray, wearing jewellery from the Newbridge Blue Box Collection, is pictured at Newbridge Visitor Centre, Co Kildare.
Linda Gray, yellow top, with members of the cast of ‘Dallas’.

Emily Hourican

There are two threads that run through Linda Gray's new book, The Road To Happiness (Is Always Under Construction). One is resilience - and this turns out to be a life with far more knocks than I would have expected - the other is a strong, instinctive championing of the rights of women: the right to work, to make choices, to make waves. To be happy. Because Linda, it turns out, knows plenty about the fight to achieve and succeed. At 75, she is still beautiful - this is what natural beauty looks like, when it starts from a very good place (there is no denying the bone structure, or those remarkable eyes; the legs that featured in that iconic poster for The Graduate) and is helped by a healthy lifestyle and cheerful, open frame of mind. You would be forgiven for thinking that she always had it easy; that opportunities tumbled into her lap. Not so.

Alongside the usual run of battles fought by any ambitious woman working and bringing up children in the 1970s and 1980s, Linda had to contend with a mother who was an alcoholic in an era where such a word was never used, followed by a husband who was controlling to the point of being abusive. But first, as a five-year-old, there was polio. Long before her legs were famous, they were paralysed, just like her paternal grandfather, who spent his life in a wheelchair.

"I came down with a bad sore throat and was sent to bed. The next day, I couldn't move my legs," she writes. For months she was confined to bed, until gradually - unexpectedly - sensation returned. This, she says now, was the beginning of what has been a consistent approach to life: find the good. Accentuate the positive. "I remember with the polio, that started me on a very positive approach, because my parents were devastated, but I wasn't. I decided I could ride with grandpa around the city in my own wheelchair. I'd probably have painted it pink, or polka dots, something eccentric, so I was ready. And I wasn't feisty at all. I was very shy. It wasn't like I was this precocious young girl, I was a shy little girl, but I was boosting up my parents, and my grandma. That seems to be a great turning point."

Another early turning point was a school dance recital, in which she walked on stage, and froze, unable to remember her steps. At the time, she was what so many beauties claim to have been - awkward and odd-looking, "an alien from Planet Amphibian," as she describes it. Often, the beauties are protesting too much, but actually, if the photos are anything to go by, Linda had a point; until the age of 15 she was snaggle-toothed and stick-thin, with lank hair and eyes that were far too big for her face. "I was doing my dance recital, and I forgot my routine," she says. "But rather than running off stage in tears, I remember standing there, waiting, until I remembered. That was my persistence and my stick-to-it-ness. That's how I've been all my life, just persisting."

But far more difficult than any of the external knocks she took and re-modelled, was the pain of Linda's home situation. "My mother was an alcoholic," she says now, "although the word 'alcoholism' didn't compute till later." All she knew as a child was that, too often, there wasn't food when she and her sister Betty needed it, there were no clean clothes, the routines of domesticity were neglected. "She wasn't a falling-down drunk; she just lived in her own blurry world," is how Linda describes it. She tries hard to make excuses - before marriage, her mother was an illustrator, designer and ballerina; after marriage, her sole creative outlet was to decorate the front of the jewellery store Linda's father inherited from his father.

But despite her efforts to understand, Linda is entirely honest about her reaction to her mother. "It was difficult," she says. "I didn't like her. I loved my father, but I didn't like her. I was aware that I didn't warm to this person who was my mother. That was challenging." What was also challenging was the level to which Linda forced herself to take over the mothering role. "I was too responsible too young," she says now. "I tuned into being a mother to my sister. I used to tell her 'no, don't do this, you have to do this . . .' I was that person, and I wanted to not be that person. I wanted to be the young girl that I was; nine, maybe ten years old. It's not like I said, 'Oh, this is happening because my mother is an alcoholic,' it was just this weave-y little trail I was on. I'd say, 'Okay, there's no food for dinner, I'd better cook something', 'I'd better take care of that, because nobody is here to do it . . .'"

When she was 14, Linda and her sister Betty confronted their father, and begged him to divorce their mother. "We don't like her and we think she should leave," they said. Their father's response? "I love her." That refusal, to do anything about a damaging situation, left its mark, particularly when Linda went on to have two children of her own. "Parents are sort of a weird barometer, [they] show you where to fit in, and so [without the example], you don't know much about the mothering and the loving, the how does that happen. That was a hard thing for me." She made her own way to being a good mother, but it took effort.

Another undesirable repercussion was to be found in Linda's relationship with her husband, Ed Thrasher, an art director who worked with Frank Sinatra and Prince (he shot the cover for Purple Rain). They met when Linda, by then 19 and a successful model who had talked her way into TV commercials - again, persistence was key; it took years before she cut through the prejudice that said 'models can't act' and landed the first of what would be over 400 TV ads - was sent for a job at the record company where he worked. Ed was "the first man to make an obvious pass at me," Linda claims, saying that during her college years she was "a loner . . . eating alone in my car at lunchtimes." He introduced her to George Harrison, Bobby Darin, Sinatra and Dean Martin, and showed her an exciting time. He was charming, forceful, determined. Within a few months, having never done more than kiss, they were married. Sex, she writes, was "a crushing disappointment, I felt hollow, empty, unloved." She knew, she says, from the very first night together, that "my marriage was not a love match."

How did that feel, I ask? "Devastating," she says slowly. And yet they stayed together for 22 years; "I was very Catholic." But it was more than that. Ed quickly began to manifest very controlling tendencies, Each day, he would leave a list of chores for Linda to do, written on the pages of a yellow legal pad, stuck to the fridge: 'Call the plumber. Iron shirts. Polish shoes.' The lists got longer and longer, and soon were written in angry capitals. If everything on the list wasn't checked off, despite the fact that Linda soon had two small children, he would demand to know why, quizzing her about what else she had done that meant she couldn't complete the assigned tasks. "It was kind of a continuation of my mother," she says. "I settled, I rationalised, I did all of that stuff, and it was a continuation of how I was raised. I wasn't conscious of it in the moment, I didn't go, 'Oh, look what I've done, I've emulated the same thing,' but there was a sameness to it when I removed myself and looked at it. It was controlling, it was never abusive physically, but emotionally . . . and that can be hard because there is nothing to show. No bruise, no cut. It took me a long time [to understand]. I didn't have the tools, I didn't have the communication skills. I didn't know how to say 'this is hurting me.'"

Eventually, she took one of the yellow legal pad pages into a group therapy session she was attending, and gave it to the therapist. By then, the family were living a kind of Good Life scenario, in a house with a barn, chickens and horses outside Los Angeles. "That was the only thing I knew how to do," she says now. "I thought 'I can't have these yellow legal pads on the refrigerator any more,' so I took it to the therapist, because I thought, 'maybe she can figure it out for me.' There was a disconnect in the way I felt, in the way I communicated - or not - with my husband. There was this constant disconnect between the authentic me, and the person that I was being."

Women, she points out, can have a problem with asking for what they want. The children of alcoholic parents, even more so. "We edit, from the gut to the mouth, it goes through some weird editing process on the way out: 'oh no, that's not nice to say.' 'That's very rude.' We go through this whole, stupid nonsense, and we don't even know who we are anymore. It gets you so crazy! That's what I went through, this whole muddle of 'I feel this way, but I don't know if I can express it . . .'"

That day, Linda's therapist explained what emotional abuse was, and the ways in which Ed was guilty of it. Then she called Ed and said that Linda had a problem, and the group needed him to attend a session with her. Ed arrived in, and was ambushed. "How dare you treat her like that?" he was asked, by one group member after another. He was furious, but there were no more notes.

If there can be anything positive in being the daughter of an alcoholic mother, Linda is inclined to look for it, and find it. If nothing else, her mother served as a perfect example of What Not To Do. In this case, not to give up your independence, your creative dreams to become a wife and mother. "I think that all of us have people in their path that are there for the biggest lessons of all," she says. "I bless my mother, for being that person. I mean, it was a little tricky" - she laughs ruefully - "a little challenging to do. That was a hard relationship, but those are the big lessons, the big learnings."

And so she stuck with her dream to take an acting class, despite Ed's disapproval, and then took the role of Sue Ellen when it came up. By dint of sheer will and talent, she transformed the part from supporting bit-player - the alcoholic wife of JR, fumbling with a bottle and glass in the background - into a major starring role. She drew on what she knew of her mother, and her own work ethic, to make the part her own, at a time when America was finally acknowledging the existence of this unspoken evil. Barely two weeks after the premiere of Dallas, in April 1978, the New York Times reported that Betty Ford, wife of Gerald, had checked herself into hospital, saying, "I'm addicted to alcohol."

Dallas was also a way to reconnect, finally, with her own mother, by then 60. Linda gave her the scripts to read, before the premiere, and the two finally began an honest conversation that would culminate with her attending AA. By the time her mother was in her 80s, Linda was her sole carer - her father had died; so too, tragically, had her sister Betty, of breast cancer, something that brings very obvious tears to Linda's eyes when I mention it. "My life changed that day in the hospital," is all she can say about Betty's death. "Standing there, in front of her bed, I realised, 'Oh my God, the fragility . . .'"

After 22 years together, she and Ed divorced. Even here, she is determined to be fair, to be generous. "I just didn't like myself with Ed," she writes in The Road To Happiness, adding, "He was my husband for a reason and he was one of my greatest teachers . . . Ed has to be honoured for following his path, his dreams, for being a great father and the best husband he knew how to be." Her talent for forgiveness is considerable, thanks to the continuous philosophical work she did in trying to understand herself, and the world around her. And it worked, after the divorce, she and Ed remained close as friends, and Linda was with him when he died, of cancer in 2006.

"I delved deeply into a different life," she says now of that process. "I wanted to know who I was, very deeply. I wanted to know, 'why did these things happen, what is this for?' I took a leap into metaphysics. I felt there was a balance I needed to find for myself. I didn't have time for therapy, I didn't have time to have a guru, so I thought, 'roll up your sleeves, because you're going to work.' And all of a sudden I was filled with a sort of radiance. I thought, 'Oh my goodness, I have to turn this over to a higher power. I need help. I have to find out who this woman is.'"

Did she like herself as a person, I wonder? "I was on the fence with myself at this point. I didn't even know who I was. I thought, 'Okay, who are you, girlfriend? I want to know you, but I don't know quite where to start . . .'" And when she did begin to find out? "I felt this lightening feeling, like rocks were going off my shoulders. There was this freedom and this airy-ness. All of a sudden, the child that I wanted to be when I was 8, 9, 10, was emerging. And there was this wonderful thing: I wasn't critical of things, myself included, I wasn't judgemental. I saw that we are all here on this planet to do the very best that we can, so stop judging yourself and others."

She writes briefly of men after her divorce from Ed, of boyfriends and relationships, but with far less than the enthusiasm she shows for her emotional discoveries, her work - she played Mrs Robinson on stage in The Graduate, in London in 2011 - even a cat. Was there no great love affair in her life, I wonder? "Not really," she says, perhaps a little sadly. "Because of me, probably because of not trusting 100pc, of feeling that I could not fully, heart, mind, body, soul, give myself. There have been lovely men, not a lot, but lovely, but no. I just sort of dropped that idea. It may still come, and that would be lovely, but I will not settle. I had to take a deep breath, and let that go."

'The Road To Happiness (Is Always Under Construction)' by Linda Gray is out now, published by Regan Arts, €29.50. Located within the Newbridge Silverware Visitor Centre, the Museum of Style Icons boasts one of the world's largest and most unique collections of style and cinema memorabilia. A one-hour guided tour costs €5 and can be booked at: www.newbridgesilverware.com

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